Obama’s ‘Polish Death Camp’ Comment ‘Infuriates’ Polish Americans

May 31, 2012 - 4:49 PM

Auschwitz SS guards

Nazi guards meet train at Auschwitz death camp, 1944. (Photo courtesy Yad Vashem/U.S.National Holocaust Museum)

(CNSNews.com) – President Obama not only angered the people of Poland with a comment he made on Tuesday referring to “Polish death camps” -- he also “infuriated” Polish Americans, many of whom live in Obama’s home town of Chicago.

The Polish-American Congress, based in Chicago, has sent a letter to Obama saying as much and demanding an apology.

“Our community in the United States and abroad was deeply hurt by your reference to the “Polish death camps,” Polish-American Congress President Frank J. Spula wrote.

“This is an egregiously and historically incorrect attribution of responsibility for the death camps installed and maintained by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland, camps in which millions of Poles, both Jewish and Christian, perished.”

Obama touched off the firestorm of protest on Tuesday during ceremonies at the White House where he bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously on Jan Karski.

Karski, a Polish diplomat who also worked with the Polish Resistance, alerted Allied leaders in London and Washington in 1943 to mass killings of Jews in Europe and in Nazi-occupied Poland. Though he smuggled himself in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto to gain evidence, the Allies refused to believe that the Germans were trying to exterminate the Jews.

White House spokesman Jay Carney on Wednesday brushed aside protest over Obama's phrase and reiterated the administration's earlier assertion that Obama simply misspoke when he referred to "Polish death camps."

"This was a simple mistake and we regret it," he said. "It was Nazi death camps that the president was referring to."

But Poland's leaders said Wednesday they weren't completely satisfied with the White House explanation. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said the entire Polish nation was wounded by Obama’s words.

"When someone says `Polish death camps,' it is as if there were no Nazis, no German responsibility, as if there were no Hitler -- that is why our Polish sensitivity in these situations is so much more than just simply a feeling of national pride," Tusk said, as quoted by the Associated Press.

In his letter to Obama, Polish American Congress President Spula said the comment was more than just a slip of the tongue -- it was “slander.”

“Having the president of the United States, speaking at the White House, use this term slanders the country which had the largest organized resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Europe, and the thousands of Polish freedom fighters, who, like Jan Karski, risked their lives to prevent Nazi war crimes,” Spula wrote.

Frank Milewski who currently heads the Holocaust Documentation Committee of the Polish-American Congress, told CNSNews.com that the organization has worked for decades to try to eliminate the link in people’s minds that the Polish people were somehow behind the Nazi camps.

“It stunned us to hear it from someone like the president of the United States,” Milewski said.

During Nazi Germany's brutal occupation of Poland, approximately 6 million Polish citizens were killed – only half of them Jews.

Milewski pointed to the fact that several of his group’s membership were in fact Polish survivors of concentration camps.

“We have members of our organization who were sent to Germany, to camps like Sachsenhausen,” Milewski said. “The primary camp where Polish (Catholic) priests were sent and executed was in Dachau, in Germany.”

Even at the dreaded and notorious Auschwitz camp, which is located in Poland, Polish Catholic prisoners outnumbered Jews until 1942, when the Nazis settled on “The Final Solution” at the Wannsee conference, he said.

More people of Polish descent live in Chicago than in any other city outside of Poland.